Few weeks ago, on the 22nd of July, the British Government announced what was considered by many to be a historic decision: the ODF (Open Document Format) standard becomes compulsory for the sharing and viewing of the government documents. ODF will be the standard for the exchange of the text and spreadsheet information between the departments of the British public institutions and with the citizens and the supplier. Thus, all players will be freed of the need to buy and use proprietary software for reading the documents. From now, any software package bought by the British governmental institutions must be compatible with ODF.
For the UK this is just a last step in a sustained long term effort to reach "an open, transparent government" and to ensure the easy access of all citizens to the public services and to the public data. The British polities in the field of open data and open standards have been well-structured for years. The manifest document "Open Standard Principles" starts with a clear statement: "Government IT must be open - open to the people and organisations that use our services and open to any provider, regardless of their size. […] government bodies must adhere to the Open Standards Principles"
In the following, we will see what the open standards and the open formats are, why they are important and how they can help us.
Over time, many organizations and governments tried to define the concept of Open Standard. The definitions are more or less strict, depending on the constituents and the interests of these organizations.
Most of them agree that a Standard is Open if it is freely available and can be implemented without any licensing cost. IETF and ITU-T consider that a standard can be open even if there are some "reasonable and non-discriminatory" patent licensing fee requirements. The position of the open source organizations and of many governments is stricter: the standard is Open if there is no cost to adopt, implement and extend it.
Open Standards play an important role in the governmental policies of developed countries, as by using them the interoperability between the IT systems and institutions can be ensured and the free access to public information can be ensured, without additional licensing costs.
In order to eliminate the ambiguity and the arbitrary interpretation of the open standards definition, the governments defined in a clear form, through laws and other regulation, the Open Standard. All specify that it should be free and some (South Africa and others) going further, stating that the standards "should be maintained by a non-commercial organization". In many cases, the extensibility of the standard is clearly stated - this is an important aspect, because some standards are open for use, but they do not allow free derivation or extension.
So far, Romania does not have its own definition of the open standard, but this will be required, especially since there is no "universal", globally accepted, definition and there is no perspective of such definition in the near future, due to the economic interest of various players.
Still, besides the policies, how do Open Standards affect or help us? Well, they are already part of our life, in many domains. The GSM help us communicate by mobile phones, TCP and IP allow us to access the information through internet, SMTP helps us to exchange emails, PCI and USB allows us to connect equipment.
From many open standards which make, or could make our life easier, the Open Formats are an important subset.
Open Formats refer to files, thus they are specifications for the digital storage of data in file format. The definition of Open Standards applies to them, but additional characteristics are proposed by some organizations:
The Open Formats are part of our life and our activity; we use them all the time in our professional and personal life. Here is a list including some of them:
GIF, JPEG 2000, PNG, SVG
HTML, XHTML, UTF-8/UTF-16, ePub, Postscript
Office Open XML ( OOXML )
Open Document Format ( ODF )
PDF ( only subsets)
gzip, tar, ZIP
CSS, CSV,JSON, RSS, XML
Already most of our actions have a digital component and in relation with the state and its institutions, local or central, this component is very important, when we pay our taxes, submit a declaration, ask for our judiciary record, and so on. It is anachronistic and frustrating that we still receive printed papers from a public institution, just to take it across the city to another institution, where a bored clerk will fill the same data by hand, reading from the printed paper.
To ensure the interoperability between the systems of the public institutions is crucial, for the efficiency of the system and for the quality of our live.
In all the governmental policies of the developed countries, the standards and especially the open formats have two major roles:
Of course reducing the costs is also an important reason, considering that the open standards can be implemented by applications that do not come with licensing costs (a simple example is the office suites - Open Office / Libre Office, versus Microsoft Office )
Access to Open Data, published in a form that can be automatically processed, is not just a normal policy to ensure that the citizen is informed, but also a huge economical stake. According to McKinsey studies, by using open data over $3 trillions can be generated each year!
Office Open XML (OOXML, OpenXML) is a zipped, XML-based format, used to describe documentary formats ( spreadsheets, presentations, word processing documents, charts ). It is developed by Microsoft, standardized by Ecma, ISO and IEC (ECMA-376, ISO/IEC 29500 ).
Open Document Format (ODF) is also a zipped, XML-based format, developed by the technical committee of OASIS, published afterwards as ISO/IEC standard, based on OpenOffice.org XML specification initially developed by Sun Microsystems.
In the last years Microsoft was repeatedly put in a difficult position by the government of various countries, in battles like the one that took place in UK this spring, resulting in the victory of ODF. The Redmond giant managed to stop, or to postpone other clear decisions in favour of ODF, but the global battle continues and the British precedent will probably have dramatic consequences.
Usually the technical arguments are brought when considering the choice between ODF and OOXML, but everybody knows that the huge economical stake is the one that tips the balance: freeing the government from the dependency on Microsoft products has the potential to create substantial savings, but also has obvious costs. Could you imagine a Romania where all the public employees work with Open Office, on computers running Linux? Not that easy, right? But in many regions of the world, this already happens.
The Microsoft Office suite was always lagging behind the open standards, even behind their own OOXML standard. The late achievement of compatibility with ODF 1.2 was announced with emphasis, however even now it is not really achieved. Probably this is not due to the incompetency of the Microsoft technicians, but to a strategic choice, to discourage the usage of ODF formats in MS Office. The frustration of someone who opens in MS Word a complex ODT file created by Open Office is a good point for Microsoft to discredit the usage of free office suites.
As for the technical arguments, they refer to many aspects, among them being:
There are also aspects referring to the control of the standard, which are very important:
The future of this dispute will be for sure interesting. Of course Microsoft can solve, if it wants to, all the problems OOXML is accused of. Until then, the British precedent makes it more vulnerable.
There are of course many aspects on which Romania has to work, in order to make its public institutions more efficient and create a friendlier relationship with the citizen and the companies. Maybe we can find with ease aspects that are "more important" than the Open Standards, but we need to ensure that the Romanian policies are complete and coherent. For now, we feel the urge to have the information published and accessible, regardless of the format, but it will not take long until we will realise how important is that this information can be processed and reused.
In the new proposed National Strategy for the Digital Agenda, MCSI mentions in several occasions the importance and the need to achieve the interoperability between institutions, through "the use of standards and models of reference". The ministry declares its interest in "promoting higher standards", so that "using Open Standards, the information managed by systems should be available in a stable, public, source independent format".
All these statements are and risk to remain empty words, and the interoperability risks to remain an illusion, if there is no coherent, assumed engagement, based on a clear definition of Open Standard and on a set of principles which should govern the implementation of the systems and the publication of information.
The promotion of good practices and standards in the IT industry is of high importance for Cluj IT Cluster and we are certain that this will bring significant advantages to everybody and especially to the public sectors.
Open Data, Web Accessibility, Open Source and Open Standards are a natural component of our interest to build a country which is more efficient, more transparent and better connected with the rest of the world.
This is why we have established a direct dialogue with the Ministry for the Informational Society and with other institutions, to bring a helpful hand in settling healthy and sustainable policies, in which the Open Standards play an important role.
We have the hope and the trust that in a not so distant future the Open Standards will be much more than an exotic concept, that they will become a reality which will make our lives easier.
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